MONROVIA, Liberia – Hoisting a Nigerian army officer on their shoulders, Liberians cheered Monday's arrival of the first soldiers in an international rescue mission that will try to end 14 years of carnage and see warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor (search) into exile.
By late in the day, 198 Nigerian soldiers armed with machine guns and assault rifles had been ferried by U.N. helicopters to the airport 30 miles outside Monrovia (search) as the vanguard of a 3,250-man intervention force promised by West African nations.
Overjoyed civilians poured onto the rain-slickened tarmac by the hundreds, waving white handkerchiefs and chanting: "No more war! We want peace!"
"I think the war is over," said Fayiah Morris, who was in the throng swarming around Nigerian soldiers in camouflage and flak vests as whirring helicopters touched down, unloading troops and 16 tons of equipment, including one armored vehicle carrying a machine gun.
The sound of gunfire and black smoke rising from Liberia (search)'s ruined capital made clear the war was far from over.
For much of the day, Liberian rebels and Taylor's troops fired automatic weapons and rocket-launchers across the Old Bridge, separating the capital's rebel-held island port and the government's downtown stronghold.
At one point, rebels taunted their foes, dancing with brooms, doing back flips and waving at Taylor's men. The government troops fired a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a pickup truck in reply.
Smoky plumes rose from the rebel-held side of the bridge. Residents said warehouses were smoldering from fires started by mortar shells Saturday.
Taylor's troops accused rebels of looting before peacekeeping force move in, but arguments over goods among Taylor's AK-47-armed fighters suggested they were doing the same.
Watching the clashes, a 16-year-old government militiaman named Victor was among those pinning his hopes on the peace force. "Help us stop the killing. I'm very tired," he said, standing with automatic rifle in hand.
At the airport, excited crowds waited at the edges of the airstrip clutching hand-lettered signs proclaiming "Peace at last." When the Nigerians arrived, about 300 people evaded security and ran onto the tarmac, lifting a smiling Nigerian Col. Onwuama Egbu Emeka to their shoulders and carrying him around.
Civilians in Monrovia milled about on the road to the airport during lulls in the fighting, watching for the peacekeepers.
"I want to see them with my own eyes," said Bangalu Wonwondor, a former farmer who has been a refugee since 1999. "And when I do, even though I have no food, my belly will be big, and I will be happy."
That is likely to take a while.
The first peacekeepers concentrated on setting up defenses at the airport. And troops won't move into Monrovia until sufficient numbers arrive, the force's Nigerian commander, Brig. Gen. Festus Okonkwo, told reporters.
In New York, a U.N. peacekeeping official, Hedi Annabi, said just deploying the first 850-soldier Nigerian battalion and its equipment would take until Aug. 17. The United States is to begin flying in the second Nigerian battalion around Aug. 15, Annabi said.
Later, he said the United Nations plans to send "a fairly sizable force" to Liberia, ideally starting on Oct. 1, to replace the Nigerian-led multinational force that began arriving in the war-battered west African nation on Monday, a senior U.N. official said.
The mission will likely be modeled on the U.N. peacekeeping mission in neighboring Sierra Leone, which had 17,500 troops at its height.
West African peacekeeping troops deployed repeatedly in Liberia in the 1990s, at times coming under attack from forces led by Taylor, then a rebel leader.
Nigerian officers at the airport said they will operate under rules of engagement authorizing them to shoot to protect civilians or themselves.
"If we want to keep peace and we cannot keep peace, it will amount to enforcing peace," Okonkwo said. "Then we'll get back to the people that sent us. They will give us the mandate."
The West African deployment was authorized last week by the U.N. Security Council, which also approved a U.S.-proposed resolution to speed a broader U.N. peacekeeping force within months.
Speaking in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, a spokesman for the Nigerian Defense Ministry, Col. Ganiyu Adewale, said his country's troops will stay in Liberia until peace is restored, elections are held and a new government inaugurated.
However, he said Nigeria needs far more international backing for the mission, expected to eventually cost at least $2 million daily.
The United States, which oversaw Liberia's 19th century founding by freed American slaves, has publicly committed only to a $10 million contract for logistical support.
President Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said U.S. officials were "very encouraged" by Monday's deployment. He pledged U.S. financial and logistical assistance and repeated Bush's demand that Taylor step down.
Under pressure from fellow West African leaders and Washington, Taylor has agreed to cede power Aug. 11.
But his government has hedged on Taylor's promises to go into exile in Nigeria, saying he would leave only when enough peacekeepers are on the ground and when a war crimes indictment against him is dropped.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Oluyemi Adeniji flew to Liberia on Monday carrying what aides said was a message for Taylor. Adeniji left without disclosing the message, but Nigerian officials said Taylor assured them he would start preparing to leave Liberia as soon as he cedes power.
"He even said the place would no longer be safe for him them," Nigerian diplomat Folu Ogunbanwo, who was at the meeting, told The Associated Press.
Taylor has promised repeatedly to yield power since June 4, when a joint United Nations and Sierra Leone court revealed the war crimes indictment against him for supporting rebels in that nation.
He is blamed for nearly 14 years of conflict in Liberia that have killed more than 100,000 people, and he is accused of gun trafficking and other dealings that have fueled conflicts in West Africa.